Mull next to lose ferry in ‘breakdown cascade’

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Mull is to lose one of its ferries in the Western Isles from Friday to cover for the broken-down MV Hebrides, leading to a ‘huge capacity reduction in the busiest week of the year’, the island’s ferry committee says.

The MV Isle of Mull is likely to remain on the ‘Uig Triangle’ route, which runs from Uig on Skye to Tarbert on Harris and Lochmaddy on North Uist, ‘until Sunday or whenever the Hebrides returns to service’, Mull Ferry Committee said.

CalMac said: ‘The MV Isle of Mull will reposition to operate services between Uig-Tarbert-Lochmaddy from Friday August 5. MV Coruisk will reposition to operate the Oban-Craignure service alongside MV Loch Frisa.’

Despite the return of the MV Coruisk, many sailings on Thursday, Friday and Saturday will operate with a reduced capacity, just as the Ross of Mull hosts the Bunessan Agricultural Show. CalMac assures essential deliveries and medical appointments will be prioritised.

The MV Hebrides was withdrawn from the Outer Hebrides on Tuesday, after a second fault in its CO2 fighfighting system was detected, just days after the last one was fixed. The vessel left Lochmaddy for the Dales yard in Greenock, and repair work began on Wednesday.

CalMac cancelled Uig-Tarbert-Uig services on Wednesday and Thursday, August 3 & 4, and gave The MV Lord of the Isles additional Lochboisdale-Armadale-Lochboisdale sailings on Wednesday and Thursday.

CalMac, which operates 48 routes with 33 vessels, said it was exploring all options for a relief vessel. When the first fault hit the MV Hebrides, one of Islay’s ferries was redeployed. When the second struck, it was Mull’s turn to lose one of its ferries.

The MV Hebrides had only recently returned to service on Friday July 29, after undergoing repairs to her CO2 firefighting system.

During its three days of repairs, one of Islay’s two ferries, the MV Hebridean Isles, was diverted to the ‘Uig Triangle’, cancelling half of the island’s lifeline services to the mainland. The Oban Times understands 40 people slept in the cars on Wednesday night and Thursday morning.

Islay Community Council’s Ferry Committee said Islay had become ‘the soft option for removing a vessel in times of trouble again’, with five sailings cancelled on one day, at the busiest time of year.

When a second fault was found on the MV Hebrides, the Islay ferry group warned CalMac: ‘Hands off the Heb Isles!’. Its secretary Jim Porteous said: ‘After the fiasco here last Thu/Fri when Heb Isles was removed, we have warned Calmac that there would be a public outcry if they were to even consider doing this to us again.’

Now, with the loss of the MV Isle of Mull to the Uig Triangle, the Mull and Iona Ferry Committee has complained to CalMac’s managing and operations directors, Transport Scotland, the transport minister, and Argyll and Bute’s MSP Jenni Minto.

‘This zero-sum decision demonstrates yet again what an appalling state our ferry service is in,’ the ferry committee write in their letter. ‘For the fleet to be so stretched and fragile, that this is the necessary ‘solution’ for a breakdown proves once again that there is a complete failure of strategy and delivery from government and its agencies.

‘This will have a hugely damaging and disruptive impact on Muileachs and Mull businesses in the busiest week of the year. You have been put in the position of having to portion the damage delivered to each island; of having to find what can be presented as the least-worst outcome. In the process you are pitting island against island. It is simply unacceptable – but we know we have little option but to take it, just as you have little option but to enact it.

‘There will be vocal and heart-felt complaints from Mull and Iona as a result of this, and they will be absolutely justified. Tour boats cancelling trips at the busiest time of the year; islanders unable to leave; valued tourists unable to get to their destination; supplies un-delivered; appointments missed. We also feel for your frontline staff who will inevitably get the blunt end of frustrated passengers’ ire.

‘We are very concerned that this is a demonstration of what having the Loch Frisa as our ‘core’ vessel will mean. Is the main Mull vessel now the fleet spare?

‘We are appalled that CMAL continue to refuse the purchase of the Pentalina in such desperate circumstances.’

Robbie Drummond, managing director of CalMac, said: ‘We have made every effort to ensure customers booked on MV Hebrides have been able to travel this week where possible. However, we have reached the point today where we must make further changes.

‘In order to reinstate sailings on the Skye triangle routes from Friday, it has become necessary to redeploy some vessels from other routes to help support services in the Western Isles area. MV Lord of the Isles, which was providing additional sailings to the Western Isles, is now out of crew hours, so we now need an alternative solution.

‘Therefore, MV Isle of Mull will move from Mull to Lochmaddy this afternoon while her sailings between Oban and Craignure will be taken over by MV Coruisk. To try and minimise the impact of these changes, we will maximise the number of sailings that MV Loch Frisa can undertake on this route as far as possible. We will also provide a shuttle service on the alternative route to Mull via Lochaline-Fishnish which will boost the number of sailings possible on this route within the limits of crew hours.

‘This is a temporary measure until repairs have been completed to MV Hebrides. Work is expected to be completed on Saturday evening and we anticipate she will be back in service on Sunday. While we aim to move all booked traffic, urgent deliveries and medical appointments will be prioritised.

‘Moving vessels around is not ideal but without any spare tonnage to use during disruption, it is often the only available option we have to continue to operate lifeline services. I can assure customers that we have looked at all possible alternative options before coming to this decision.

‘I am deeply sorry about the effect that the loss of MV Hebrides has had on our passengers and communities.’

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has welcomed the news that MV Isle of Mull will be redeployed to cover the Little Minch.

The Comhairle said Harris and Uist suffered a net loss of capacity of 2,000 car spaces in the three days when MV Hebrides was out of service, causing severe impacts for island businesses and islander travel. It is a relief that a vessel will be in place to provide mitigation in time for the busy weekend.

Chairman of Transportation and Infrastructure, councillor Uisdean Robertson, said: ‘It was a great relief to hear that MV Isle of Mull will be redeployed to cover for MV Hebrides while repairs to our vessel continue in Greenock.

‘We recognise that the cost of this redeployment is a loss of capacity on routes to Mull and Skye and we are grateful to those communities for the understanding they have shown. This underlines the urgent need for investment in the ferry fleet to ensure that reliability is improved and to avoid the impact always being passed on to others.

‘We understand there are no easy decisions for CalMac until such time as there is adequate investment in the fleet at their disposal.’

On Thursday, Na h-Eileanan an Iar SNP MP Angus Macneil and MSP Alasdair Allan met with Minister for Transport, Jenny Gilruth MSP, along with CalMac, CMAL, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and representatives of the Ferries Community Board to raise their concern about the present disruption to the routes served by MV Hebrides.

Angus MacNeil MP said: ‘Clearly, at a time when the islands are making money in the summer with the ferries, this is a terrible time for them to breakdown. RET was set up to increase the economic activity on the islands, when the boats are not sailing, the effects are acutely felt. I think everyone is gobsmacked that the same system affects the same boat in a matter of days.

‘We can all feel the frustration of the effects of ferries breaking down. I am encouraged that the Scottish Government are trying to source an extra vessel that can be on standby when a vessel breaks down which many of us have urged them to do.”

Alasdair Allan MSP said: ‘I am grateful to the Minister for organising today’s meeting and for the update on the situation.

‘I made clear the overwhelming sense of frustration of affected communities. I appreciate the uniqueness of the situation CalMac faces in having a firefighting system repaired and cleared by the MCA, only to see the same issue reoccur days later.

‘However, that’s of no solace to the communities that have seen their vessel taken out of service for the fifth time this year. It’s ultimately islanders and island businesses and that pay the price of these large scale disruptions.

‘The Minister agreed to look at whether a compensation scheme can be created from the financial penalties Transport Scotland receives from CalMac as a result of sailings which do not go ahead. I was also pleased to hear the Scottish Government’s recognition of the need for the Uig Triangle to be served by two vessels to ensure adequate resilience.

‘However, the meeting left CalMac and Transport Scotland in no doubt that the current situation is unendurable.’